Archives For Rigmarole

C.S. Lewis & Rigmarole

November 16, 2022 — 6 Comments

I hope my confusion is not due to a decline in my mental faculties. But it seems to me politicians are becoming even more incoherent than they’ve always been.

Is it me? Or, are you also amazed at how some of them appear to be babbling half the time?

C.S. Lewis was a master of communication. And some of his observations about how poorly some people communicate can be insightful.

Listen to this verse from a poem entitled “The Prudent Jailer” which he wrote in 1947. (It deserves to be read out loud.)

Stone walls cannot a prison make
Half so secure as rigmarole.

Lewis wasn’t referring to political jargon when he wrote this poem, but it seems quite apropos in a number of contexts.

For example, consider a recent article from the American Institute for Economic Research. Jon Sanders applies Lewis’ poem to foreboding aspects the government’s response to the pandemic.

The poem originated not in political allegory, but as a critique of unimaginative literary criticism. Notwithstanding, the Jailer is a diabolical figure, and his prudence is this: he imprisons with words, not walls. . . .

The Jailer has them imprisoned by their own thoughts, while he keeps them focused ever on the presumption of a prison. He doesn’t want them thinking of anything else.

This post isn’t about politics. I detest the subject as a whole, and find it particularly corrosive to conversation as elections draw near.

The verse I cited above simply evoked for me the power of words to distort and, yes, imprison. Lewis’ use of rigmarole* (a word sadly out of vogue) highlights the fact that the crippling words themselves are often nonsensical.

Other colorful synonyms that we might hear in the company of our seniors could include balderdash, poppycock, or perhaps even malarkey.

In a 1940 letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, Lewis applies “balderdash” to describe art and literature done “for their own sake.”

I do most thoroughly agree with what you say about Art and Literature. To my mind they are only healthy when they are either (a) Definitely the handmaids of religious, or at least moral, truth – or (b) Admittedly aiming at nothing but innocent recreation or entertainment. . . .

But the great serious irreligious art – art for art’s sake – is all balderdash; and, incidentally, never exists when art is really flourishing.

Fortunately, such words rarely become completely obsolete.

A noteworthy mythopoeic⁑ scholar, Brenton Dickieson, used “balderdash” quite skillfully not that long ago.

“The Prudent Jailer” was originally published in 1947 under the mundane title, “The Romantics.”

Since you’ve read this column to its conclusion, allow me to reward your diligence by presenting the poem in its entirety.

The Prudent Jailer

Always the old nostalgia? Yes.
We still remember times before
We had learned to wear the prison dress
Or steel rings rubbed our ankles sore.

Escapists? Yes. Looking at bars
And chains, we think of files; and then
Of black nights without moon or stars
And luck befriending hunted men.

Still when we hear the trains at night
We envy the free travelers, whirled
In how few moments past the sight
Of the blind wall that bounds our world.

Our Jailer (well may he) prefers
Our thoughts should keep a narrower range.
‘The proper study of prisoners
is prison,’ he tells us. Is it strange?

And if old freedom in our glance
Betrays itself, he calls it names
‘Dope’-‘Wishful thinking’-or ‘Romance,’
Till tireless propaganda tames.

All but the strong whose hearts they break,
All but the few whose faith is whole.
Some walls cannot a prison make
Half so secure as rigmarole.


* Many in the States will be more familiar with the variant “rigamarole.”

⁑ Mythopoeia is a modern literary genre in which the author creates a fictional mythology. The finest example of such writing comes from the pen of J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of Middle Earth.